Character and the Hollywood Continuity System

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As i mentioned in my post on The End of St. Petersburg (1927) Hollywood tends to concentrate on individuals rather than social or community-based forces as the engine for change and action. I have also mentioned here and there about the continuity system, which at all times hopes to ensure that the viewer identifies with, and understands, the motivations and nature of a central character. The Silence of the Lambs’  introductary scene is a clear indication of this form. The movie’s tagline ‘Clarice Starling, FBI. Brilliant. Vulnerable. Alone.’ is the exact concentration of what the continuity system has to communicate early to the viewer so that they can understand her character, motivations and conflicts. All of the characteristics (bar Vulnerable which is shown in the first scene with Hannibal) are instantly evident and are concentrated in a prolonged introductory first scene. Clarice is running alone, keeping time with herself, working hard beyond the call of duty. She is asked to see her superior for special assignment. Her loneliness and brilliance are both linked. This is proven as she walks into a lift. She is surrounded by people dressed in uniform red jumpers, she wears grey, she is an individual and alone amongst her peers. Her brilliance is proven by the use of a cut to her exiting the lift alone. Essentially the shot is symbolic of her reaching a level that none of her classmates reach. Again we are invited to infer that she is both alone and brilliant. We know she is FBI because she is training at their compound with the intent to graduate and we find out she is vulnerable later on with her meeting with Hannibal (and the use of Flashbacks to her childhood all centralized around her father). All important aspects of Clarice’s character are basically foregrounded in the first few scenes.

The Communication of Era In Cinema

Directors wishing to portray a definitive era in a movie use certain techniques which also produce nostalgic emotions of a sense of authenticity which are both beneficial to cinema as art and a commercial product. In Films such as O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) the colour brown is used to produce an affect of a faded and lost past. This makes the film similar to looking at a very old photograph aged sepia-brown. This imbues the whole form of the film with a sense of a by-gone era. The use of browns also strips away, or inhibits, the editors’ [or whoever] ability to produce a slick glossy product as sepia-brown ensures an aesthetic affect which communicates a reality opposed to the whole editing process.

Another common technique, used more and more regularly due to the financial importance of a film having a commercially viable soundtrack, is the use of music. This is normally non-diegetic however occasionally this is a main part of the diegesis. One movie that uses music to produce a sense of era is Donnie Darko (2001). All through the film a classic eighties soundtrack is played which injects a sense of place, time and atmosphere. Using music of a definitive era helps communicate the atmosphere that the director wants as they can use a specific genre of music to imbue the film with an emotion. The music of the seventies can both be used to communicate a riotous sense of anger with a punk soundtrack and create a sense of love and romance with a use of disco soundtrack.

Brief Notes On The Continuity Editing System

The continuity system is the common method that Hollywood employs when it produces a film. The continuity system is completely aesthetic. The continuity system produces films with a ‘editing [style] that is carefully calibrated with the action on screen.’◊ The action, movement is be edited so that the audience can understand at all times any conflict and any relationships – spatial or emotional. The continuity system is a guideline that helps produce a sense of correct spatial relationships. Eyeline matches between person and object help locate the audience in the scene and help highlight any importance object holds.

Another important note regarding the continuity system is that it holds that the narrative, and how the narrative is shown, should move in a linear fashion. That is; from cause to affect. Ocasionally this is disrupted, such as in the analepsis (flashback) style of narrative famous in Film Noir, however one thing that remains is that once in the action of the film the editing composes the film in a order so that every action is understandable. In Double Indemnity (1944) Walter Neff’s narration is composed so that every action he re-tells is rationalized and given a clear motive. This ensures that the audience at all times understands where and why the action is taking place.

◊ Maria Pramaggiore and Tom Wallis (ed), Film: A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing (2008) p. 213.

[On a side note my father is currently staying so full entries on individual movies is not easy, however i have several notes filled in a little yellow book and will be writing those up]

Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Soviet Montage Theory

The End of St. Petersburg (1927)

Vsevolod Pudovkin’s film The End of St. Petersburg was written for the tenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution. Pudovkin’s film adheres to the formalistic conventions of Soviet cinema, particularly the use of montage. Pudovkin’s film differs slightly by concentrating on several characters and their experiences through the years leading up to, and during, the Bolshevik revolution. In Classical Hollywood cinema the heroes tend to be individuals whose sheer force of will affects change, but in Soviet cinema, due to ideological difference, the masses are seen as the force that affects change.1 The proletariat replaces the traditional individual protagonist and the bourgeoisie replace the conventional antagonist.

The formal technique of montage is important in The End of St. Petersburg for creating politicized narrative. The film builds a narrative around the proletariat’s collective spirit, constructed through several different characters – most importantly the farmer, the factory worker and his wife. Vsevolod Pudovkin called his use of montage ‘relational editing’. Pudovkin explains, in his writing about film technique, that the form of film, and the style of editing, should be an instrument of expression.2 One instrument of expression that that Vsevolod used was what he called the technique of ‘parallelism’. In The End of St. Petersburg we are shown Russian soldiers who are running over the top of a muddy trench towards their death at the hand of a German machine gun. The shot cuts to a parallel of bourgeoisie men in suits rushing up stairs to get to a stock exchange. The bourgeoisie men, instead of encountering machine gun bullets, buy the stock from a company which produces shells for the Russian government. The edit creates a parallel between two different actions and spatial environments. The parallel montage technique therefore imbues the action of buying stock, and capitalism, with the violence and murder of the battlefield scene. Another parallel is made in the same scene; as the battlefield fills up with wounded and lifeless bodies, both Russian and German, the scene cuts to the stock exchange market rate rising along with with several bourgeoisie shaking violently – as if they were themselves manning the machine guns. The excited ecstatic movement becomes a stark somber parallel when set against the bloody stalemate of the battlefield scene, through the technique of parallelism we, the audience, are made aware of the brutality of the capitalist system which makes profit in murder and the destruction of a nation’s own people.

Where as Classic Hollywood film utilizes aesthetic similarities between shots to create a sense of reality the Soviet montage method exploits aesthetic and thematic differences to produce politically charged meaning. The images in The End of St. Petersburg are left somewhat open to the viewers’ interpretation however overall we are guided psychologically, by the technique of parallelism, into accepting the political ideology of the film.3 The method of psychological guidance means Pudovkin’s relational editing system technique is an important instrument in creating a politicized narrative.

1M, Pramaggiore and T, Wallis. (ed). Film A Critical Introduction, London: Laurence King Publishing, (2007) p. 225.

2Vsevolod Pudovkin ‘Film Technique’ in Gerald Mast & Marshall Cohen (ed), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1979) pp. 77-84 p.82.

3Pudovkin ‘Film Technique’ pp. 82-84